Survey suggests new size category for older women

November 25, 1993|By Jennifer Lowe | Jennifer Lowe,Orange County Register

Often the only fit older women experience in the dressing room is one of frustration.

Necklines choke. Zippers won't close. Even elastic waists can be too tight.

"I've threatened to sew my own clothes," complained Lois Mechan of San Clemente, Calif., who said she is "over 65." She usually rips out tight elastic waistbands and sews in something looser.

Alice Clegg, 85, of Irvine, Calif., recently tried on Capri pants that fit perfectly in the hips but were 2 inches too small in the waist.

"All my life I've made my own clothes," she said, frustrated. "But I'm discovering I'd better continue to sew."

At one time or another, most shoppers have stood before mirrors, struggling into clothes that don't fit, going home empty-handed.

But such frustrations might be felt most keenly by the 17 million American women 55 and older, whose bodies have changed shape as they aged.

Women might lose an inch or two in height, go up a size or two around the hips, but shrink a size through the shoulders. They might thicken through the waist and bust, find their stomachs protruding and backsides slimming. Or their clothes might pull too tight across the back as their shoulders narrow. And they might not have gained any weight.

Suddenly the once-perfect size 10 or the woman who always knew her size is lost.

But fashion for older women need not be hopeless.

The authors of a national survey that measured 7,000 women ages 55 and older say there is a need for a new size category. Using the data they've gathered, Ellen Goldsberry and University of Arizona colleague Naomi Reich hope new sizing standards can be established for manufacturers to construct clothing for this age group.

"I don't believe manufacturers were convinced older women had specific needs," said Ms. Goldsberry, director of the Cooperative Extension program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and co-director of the Apparel Sizing Project for Women 55 and Older, sponsored by the American Society of Testing and Materials and the Institute of Standards Research.

Manufacturers cut clothes based on sizing measurements last taken in 1942 -- and no older women were included in those surveys.

While older men might feel frustrated as well, their garments are sized by measurements, Ms. Goldsberry said. Even if clothing is too big or small, it often can be tailored. That's not as easy with women's clothing, she added.

One reason for the lack of action on the fit of women's clothing, Ms. Goldsberry said, is that older women have been reluctant to discuss their troubles with fit. Rather than thinking something must be wrong with the clothes, they often think something is wrong with them.

"Women have had real hang-ups on size and changing bodies, and continuing to be compared to and expected to maintain that Jane Fonda figure," she said. "Age doesn't really allow us to do that. It's unrealistic."

During the measuring survey, Ms. Goldsberry heard the same complaints over and over.

"One of the common ones is that yes, companies make elastic waistbands, but then they don't make belts longer. Another is that women say they can't wear jewel necklines because they choke them. So they say they'll never wear that style."

Women even reported wearing their pants backward, Ms. Goldsberry said, because as their weight shifted from back to front, it became more comfortable.

Already some manufacturers and retailers are listening to these complaints, especially as they realize older shoppers are willing to invest in clothes that fit.

"The over-40 market is one of the fastest growing markets, and we need to be known as a store carrying things for women over 40, and proud of it," said Fran Broda, the Orange County, California, buyer of sportswear for the Nordstrom Town Square department, which caters to customers in their 40s and older.

The final hurdle of the sizing survey will be suggesting a name for the new size category -- something that won't offend. "Prime Addition" and "Lady Sophisticates" are just two among the 13 pages of single-spaced suggestions Ms. Goldsberry now has.

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